UW-Madison's Homegrown Hip-Hop Festival put our city on the map last year as a destination for the best regional hip-hop artists. This year, planners of the free, three-day fest hope to illustrate just how much the Midwest contributes to hip-hop across the country, from the small towns of Wisconsin to the clubs and record labels of New York and L.A.
Matt Forrest, a UW junior who launched the fest last year, says a great deal of the innovation going on in hip-hop now happens in the Great Lakes region, and not either coast. "One of our two headliners, Kid Sister, really embodies the Chicago sound, which has burst onto the national scene in the last year," he says.
Half of the Chicago DJ duo Flosstradamus, Kid Sister grabbed the spotlight last year when her single "Pro Nails" reached number 21 on the U.S. singles chart. The track, which features a style of hip-hop that fuses electro and club music with rap, was so groundbreaking that Kanye West added a verse of his own to the remix. Her debut album, Dream Date, hits stores just as the festival kicks off.
Meanwhile, Kid Cut Up, who visits the festival for the second year in a row, represents a slice of the Milwaukee sound. Several years ago, he helped pioneer the Midwest's mashup trend by blending rock and hip-hop tracks on the turntables at dance clubs. Today his unconventional pairings are about making hip-hop a more expansive and inclusive genre.
"Right now I feel there is a lack of variety in the voice of hip-hop, so I take those 'other voices' and match them to party-rocking tracks," he says. "There aren't many other times when you might hear artists like Dead Prez, Sage Francis, Brother Ali, El-P or Mac Lethal in a general club setting," he says.
Even so, he notes, "while I may play rock music or house music or any of the new hipster dance styles, I always do it as a hip-hop DJ."
The festival's other headliner, the emcee collective Doomtree, represents some of the musical innovation taking place in the Twin Cities. "They're mixing metal-rock with hip-hop, but not like it's been done before," says Forrest. "Each time you listen to their songs, it's something different - and really innovative."
El Guante (a.k.a. Kyle Myhre), a rapper and spoken-word artist from Minneapolis by way of Madison, will represent both of these cities. He gives a human face to spoken-word poetry, an art form that sustains itself through poetry slams even as, some say, it is being elbowed out of the hip-hop world.
But El Guante believes that spreading a meaningful - and often political - message is paramount, and it's inherently part of what a hip-hop artist should do. "I think politics in hip-hop goes way beyond what we rap about," he says. "It's about building bridges between communities, actually being involved in different campaigns or movements, taking an active part in the struggle, so [it makes sense] that my work is very political, sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly."
The political nature of his music has allowed him to bring new people into the hip-hop fold from the academic and activist communities in the Twin Cities. It also provides a model for how hip-hop could reach new audiences in Madison.
Forrest says public misconceptions about hip-hop as a "dangerous" art form or a type of music that incites violence posed significant challenges to the organization and funding of the first festival in 2007. "Hip-hop is enjoyed by so many people and is just as marketable as an indie-rock show like Bon Iver," he says. "Many times, it can be the same crowd."
A spotless track record from last year's fest was helpful in soliciting the support of the university's powers that be for this year's fest. "The Brother Ali show crammed the Rathskeller last year, and there were no [safety] issues at all," Forrest says. "The fans were just there to listen to the artists and their messages, just like any other fans."